Joshua 5:2: The Mysterious Case of Israel’s Circumcision at Gilgal, Part 1

Verse 2:[1] At that time the LORD said unto Joshua, Make thee (Ex. 4:25) sharp knives (or, knives of flints[2]), and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time.

[At that time] After they entered the Holy Land (Vatablus); when they first arrived at Gilgal (Masius, Drusius). There were only four days remaining until the time of Passover, which was to be observed on the fourteenth day (Masius); but they were not able to keep the Passover unless circumcised (Serarius); and in the meantime the wound of circumcision ought to be healed (Masius); but the pain of Circumcision is greatest on the third day, Genesis 34:25. Therefore, this was done on the eleventh day: thus they had nearly the whole fourteenth day to revive themselves, and to recover their strength after that pain (Serarius). Nevertheless, such a multitude (of those to be circumcised) occasions some difficulty: For they were around six hundred thousand men. Response: Most of those were circumcised: But all the circumcised, even those circumcised on the same day, likewise also mothers, or other women, were able to circumcise: Therefore, that number would be exhausted in a short time, if two or three be assigned to each of the circumcised (Bonfrerius, Serarius).

At that time; as soon as ever they were come to Gilgal, which was on the tenth day; and so this might be executed the next, or the eleventh day, and that in the morning: on the thirteenth day they were sore of their wounds, and on the fourteenth day they recovered, and at the even of that day kept the passover.

[Make for thyself knives of stone, חַֽרְב֣וֹת צֻרִ֑ים] [They vary.] Knives of rocks, or rocky, or stony (Montanus, Septuagint, Arabic, similarly Masius, Lapide, Bonfrerius). Thus the ancients in Genesis Rabbah.[3] Thus צוּר in Exodus 4:25[4] they translate flint, or rock, etc. (Onkelos in Masius, Pagnine and Forster and Tigurinus in Bonfrerius). Question: Why with rocky knives? Responses: 1. Because in that place, around Arabia, there was an abundance of rocks, but a lack of iron and steel (Lapide). 2. Because perhaps few of them, after the travelling of so many years, had iron knives (Theodotion in Bonfrerius). This was fulfilled with hard flints, says Maimonides[5] in Guide for the Perplexed[6] 1:16 (Masius). These were formerly used for castration. Catullus[7] in his poem “Concerning Berecynthia[8] and Attis[9]”, he rolled away his stones with a sharp flint.[10] Plutarch[11] likewise relates in “Nicias”[12] that a man cut off his own genitals with a flint. And Juvenal, Satires 6, he cut off his tender genitals with a broken shard. Likewise Pliny’s Natural History 35:12, with a Samian[13] shard the priests of the Mother of the gods amputate their manliness, the only means of avoiding disaster. That stones were also used to sharpen reeds, Julianus testifies, Epigrams 6. Finally, they relate that among the Americans they meet with flints in the place of knives (Bonfrerius). [Nevertheless, others render it otherwise.] Knives, or short sword, sharp (Munster, Pagnine, Tigurinus, Junius and Tremellius, Piscator); knives of sharp edges, that is, provided with an extremely sharp edge (Vatablus); sharpened razors (the Chaldean in Vatablus, Hebrews in Munster); daggers of stones, that is, sharp after the likeness of stone (Piscator). צוּר signifies rock; and, since knives are sharpened with stones, it appears to be the case that the efficient is taken in the place of the effect (Munster).

Make thee sharp knives; or, prepare, or make ready, as this word is sometimes used. As it was not necessary for those who had such knives already to make others for that use; so it is not probable that such were commanded to do so, but only to make them sharp and fit for that work. They are called in Hebrew knives of flints, not as if they were all necessarily to be made of flints, but because such were commonly used, especially in those parts, where there was but little iron; and because such knives were oft used in this work, as the Jewish doctors note, and in such like works, as the heathen writers relate. Thus we call that an inkhorn which is made of silver, because those utensils are commonly made of horn.

[And circumcise a second time, וְשׁ֛וּב מֹ֥ל—שֵׁנִֽית׃] And return, circumcise…a second time (Montanus); having returned, circumcise a second time (Munster). And, settling, circumcise (Septuagint). In the place of שׁוּב/return, they read שֵׁב/sit (Masius). And go back (having gone back [Syriac]), circumcise (Jonathan). And tomorrow circumcise for a second time (Arabic); repeating a second time, circumcise (Junius and Tremellius). Verbatim: return, circumcise; that is, circumcise again. שׁוּב/return is wont, when it is constructed with another verb following, to adverbialize (Malvenda). By a repetition, circumcise (certain interpreters in Malvenda); bring it to pass again that they might be circumcised a second time (Pagnine). Question: In what way a second time, when neither the nature of the thing, nor the Divine religion, permits that the same man be circumcised again (Masius)? Response 1: Some maintain that those once circumcised, with the foreskin growing again or having drawn together, were circumcised again (certain interpreters in Serarius). The Talmudists say that there were many at that time that, having been oppressed in Egyptian servitude, by a certain medical art, with the skin drawn and stretched, had devised for themselves a new foreskin, and had covered their glans with it again.[14] Symmachus, the translator of the Sacred Scripture, and others going over from the Jews to the Samaritans, and a great many Hebrews harassed by the abuses of the Romans, who were circumcised again afterwards at the command of Bar Kochba,[15] did similarly. Concerning this Paul also speaks, 1 Corinthians 7:18 (Masius). The Jews did three things in circumcision: 1. They cut off the foreskin. 2. They stretch and pull back the remaining skin, so the corona of the penis (for so they call it) might appear; from which greater pain is occasioned than from the circumcision. This they call פְּרִיעָה/Periah (the stretching of the skin). 3. They suck the blood from the wounded member. Therefore, the Hebrews say that the sons of Israel were indeed circumcised in the desert, but they did not receive the stretching of the skin, which is here prescribed; and in this sense they are commanded to be circumcised again (Munster). This interpretation is not satisfying. 1. The text overthrows this interpretation, which says that they were diverse that were now circumcised, and that were previously. 2. That drawing together of the skin would have involved the Israelites in the greatest wickedness, which the Lord would not have borne for so long unpunished, neither would Moses and Joshua have dissembled. 3. If the skin was only to be separated and folded back, there would not have been need of such sharp knives; for even today circumcisers do this with their nails (Serarius). Response 2: Some translate שֵׁנִית not a second time, but repeatedly, that is, more frequently or with many returns; that is to say, Repeat circumcision until all have been circumcised (Drusius, similarly Kimchi in Masius). שָׁנָה signifies to repeat, Proverbs 24:21;[16] 26:11[17] (Kimchi in Glassius’ “Grammar” 463). That is to say, Again and again, passing back and forth through the camp, take care lest any be left uncircumcised (Kimchi in Masius). But this is to twist the Scripture (Masius). Response 3: This was a second circumcision, namely, a solemn circumcision of the people (Lyra, Estius). This is called a second, either, 1. with respect to the circumcision of the family of Abraham, Genesis 17:23, in which both the entirety of the Church of God, and so the people of God in their entirety, were circumcised by Abraham, and this sign was instituted by God, as a pledge of the promise of Canaan. But now the people of God in their entirety are circumcised by Joshua, since that promise is brought to fruition by God. Let me speak more plainly. God had of old constituted by the sign of Circumcision a particular assembly, or Church: Since that assembly was propagated until the time of Moses by continual succession and observation of the sacred rites, now at length, with all of whom there was a reckoning in the solemn musterings once killed, but with the rest uncircumcised, that manner of association appears to have been interrupted in a certain way: Therefore, God commands it to be restored. It is indeed plausible that there were a great many living at that time that had been born and circumcised in Egypt; and the Jews free all the Levites from the guilt of rebellion at Kadesh-Barnea.[18] But the people is reckoned according to the condition of those that were its greatest part by far (Masius). This exposition does not satisfy (Lapide, Serarius); thus this circumcision would not be a second, but more than a tenth. For after Abraham, through the course of four hundred years unto Moses, all the posterity were circumcised (Lapide). Neither would this be a second solemn circumcision. For was not that circumcision in Genesis 34 solemn (Serarius)? 2. Therefore, to others it is called a second with respect to circumcision in Egypt. Some maintain that circumcision was neglected in Egypt (which Tertullian[19] also affirms), and restored by Moses, who, when he, returning into Egypt, by his own peril had learned just how little God would bear the neglect of it,[20] circumcised immediately all that had not undertaken to do that because of that most rigorous servitude (Rabbi Levi and other Hebrews in Masius). A general circumcision of the people, being just about to depart from Egypt: And, just as God had at that time had shut up the Egyptians in three days of darkness, so that they were not able to move;[21] so now He struck the Canaanites with terror, so that they dare not move themselves to strike the people while suffering from their recent wound. Moreover, circumcision was the seal of the gift of the land of Canaan, and, becaused they had advanced as far as possible, they are commanded to be circumcised (Lightfoot). Or, 3. with respect to the circumcision performed at mount Sinai, where Moses circumcised however many were born, either during those forty-seven days in which they came up out of Egypt,[22] or in the meantime while they were remaining there (Masius, similarly Vatablus). Masius confirms this. 1. Since there was to be a long delay at mount Sinai, there was no reason why they might omit that rite. 2. He was unwilling that another rite, namely, Passover, be omitted, so how would He disregard circumcision? And it is accurately said in verse 5 that no one was circumcised in the journey, in their going forth. But what was done in their station at mount Sinai ought not to be reckoned as done in the journey (Serarius out of Masius). Indeed, these things are said with great probability: but some things oppose, namely, 1. that in verses 6 and 7 it is said that no one was circumcised for forty years. 2. That in verses 5 and 7 the two boundaries, as it were, of the circumcision performed, are stated, one in Egypt, the other in Canaan. Concerning Passover prescription is given, because that rite was the most recent, only once met. Otherwise concerning circumcision (Serarius). 3. Concerning this circumcision neither the Scripture, nor Philo, nor Josephus, nor anyone else, makes mention (Lapide). Response 4: Others thus: it is called a second circumcision, that is to say, redone, repeated, and recalled and renewed after a long interval (Serarius). The sense: Revive the custom of circumcision, intermitted for a long time in the desert (Menochius, Tirinus, similarly Junius, Piscator, Bonfrerius, Cunæus’ Concerning the Republic of the Jews[23] 3:5. The same man is not commanded to be circumcised, but the same people/nation, who had first been circumcised in their parents in Egypt, and here is commanded to be circumcised in their sons (Lapide).

Circumcise again; he calleth this a second circumcision, not as if these same persons had been circumcised once before, either by Joshua, or by any other, for the contrary is affirmed below, verse 7; but with respect unto the body of the people, whereof one part had been circumcised before, and the other at this time, which is called a second time, in relation to some former time wherein they were circumcised; either, 1. In Egypt, when many of the people, who possibly for fear or favour of the Egyptians had neglected this duty, were by the command of Moses (who had been awakened by the remembrance of his own neglect and danger thereupon) circumcised; which during the ten plagues, and the grievous confusion and consternation of the Egyptians, they might easily find opportunity to do. Or, 2. At Sinai, when they received the passover, Numbers 9:5, which no uncircumcised person might do, Exodus 12:48; and therefore it may not seem improbable, that all the children born in that first year after their coming out of Egypt, and all they who peradventure might come out of Egypt in their uncircumcision, were now circumcised. Objection 1. All that came out of Egypt were circumcised, verse 5. Answer 1. This may be true, but he doth not say when and where they were circumcised; nor doth he deny that this was done to some of them, either in time of the plagues in Egypt, or at Sinai. 2. All is very oft used of the greatest part, as is confessed. Objection 2. All the people that were born in the wilderness were not circumcised, verse 5. Answer 1. Understand this also of the greatest part. 2. This is limited to them that were born by the way, as it is said there, and emphatically repeated, verse 7, that is, in their journeys and travellings; which insinuates the reason why they were not circumcised, because they were always uncertain of their stay in any place, and were constantly to be in a readiness for a removal when God took up the cloud: but this reason ceased at Sinai, where they knew they were to abide for a considerable time; and seeing they took that opportunity for the celebration of the passover, it is likely they would improve it also to the circumcision of their children or others, which they ought to prize highly, and to embrace all occasions offered for it; which though the people might, it is not likely that Moses would neglect. Objection 3. They are said to have remained uncircumcised forty whole years in the wilderness, verse 6. Answer. That is, For almost forty years; as the same phrase is used Numbers 14:33,34; 32:13, when there was above one year of that number past and gone. Or, 3. In Abraham; and so the sense may be, The first circumcision conferred upon Abraham, and continued in his posterity, hath been for many years neglected or omitted; and so that great and solemn pledge of my covenant with you is in a manner wholly lost, and therefore it is but fit and necessary to have this long-interrupted practice of circumcision revived, and to have Abraham’s posterity circumcised a second time for the renewing of the covenant between them and me again.

[1] Hebrew: בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֗יא אָמַ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־יְהוֹשֻׁ֔עַ עֲשֵׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ חַֽרְב֣וֹת צֻרִ֑ים וְשׁ֛וּב מֹ֥ל אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שֵׁנִֽית׃

[2] Hebrew: חַֽרְב֣וֹת צֻרִ֑ים.

[3] Bereshith Rabba, or Genesis Rabbah, is a sixth century midrash on Genesis.  It provides explanations and interpretations of words and phrases, which explanations are often only loosely connected with the text.  It draws upon the Mishna, Tosefta, and Targums.

[4] Exodus 4:25a:  “Then Zipporah took a flint (צֹר), and cut off the foreskin of her son…”

[5] Moses Maimonides, or Rambam (1135-1204), is reckoned by many to be the greatest Jewish scholar of his age.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, Rabbinic tradition, natural science, and Aristotelian philosophy, Maimonides demonstrates great command and almost equal facility.

[6] Moreh Nevochim.

[7] Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84 BC-c. 54 BC) was a Roman poet.

[8] Berecynthia is a mountain in Phrygia, associated with the worship of Cybele.

[9] Attis was a Phyrigian shepherd, and the object of Cybele’s affection.

[10] The Galli were priests of Cybele; it is said of them that they castrated themselves in the midst of ecstatic worship rituals.

[11] Mestrius Plutarchus (c. 46-127) was a Greek historian.

[12] Parallel Lives “Nicias” 13:2.

[13] Pottery made in Gaul is sometimes referred to as “Samian”.

[14] Babylonian Talmud Yebamot 72a.

[15] Simon bar Kokhba was the Jewish leader of a revolt against the Roman Empire in 132 AD.  In response, Hadrian sent the Roman army.  There were massive casualties on both sides, but the revolt was effectually suppressed.

[16] Proverbs 24:21:  “My son, fear thou the Lord and the king: and meddle not with them that are given to change (שׁוֹנִים)…”

[17] Proverbs 26:11:  “As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth (שׁוֹנֶה) to his folly.”

[18] See Numbers 13; 14; Deuteronomy 9:23.

[19] See Answer to the Jews 3.

[20] Exodus 4:24-26.

[21] Exodus 10:21-23.

[22] Exodus 12:2, 6; 19:1.

[23] Peter Cunæus (1586-1638) studied under Scaliger and Drusius, and in 1611 he became Professor of Law at Leiden.  His De Republica Judæorum was based upon Bonaventure Cornelius Bertram’s work of the same title, but enlarged with his own research.  The republic of the ancient Israelites is set forth as a pattern for the republic of the Dutch.  His book was well-received by Hebraists and Calvinists in the Netherlands.

1 thought on “Joshua 5:2: The Mysterious Case of Israel’s Circumcision at Gilgal, Part 1

  1. Matthew Henry: “The opportunity which this gave to the Israelites to circumcise those among them that were uncircumcised: At that time (Joshua 5:2), when the country about them was in that great consternation, God ordered Joshua to circumcise the children of Israel, for at that time it might be done with safety even in an enemy’s country; their hearts being melted, their hands were tied, that they could not take this advantage against them as Simeon and Levi did against the Shechemites, to come upon them when they were sore. Joshua could not be sure of this, and therefore, if he had ordered this general circumcision just at this time of his own head, he might justly have been censured as imprudent; for, how good soever the thing was in itself, in the eye of reason it was not seasonable at this time, and might have been of dangerous consequence; but, when God commanded him to do it, he must not consult with flesh and blood; he that bade them to do it would, no doubt, protect them and bear them out in it. Now observe,

    1. The occasion there was for this general circumcision. (1.) All that came out of Egypt were circumcised, Joshua 5:5, while they had peace in Egypt doubtless they circumcised their children the eighth day according to the law. But after they began to be oppressed, especially when the edict was made for the destruction of their male infants, the administration of this ordinance was interrupted; many of them were uncircumcised, of whom there was a general circumcision, either during the time of the three days’ darkness, as Dr. Lightfoot conjectures, or a year after, just before their eating the second passover at Mount Sinai, and in order to that solemnity (Numbers 9:2) as many think. And it is with reference to that general circumcision that this is called a second, Joshua 5:2. But the learned Masius thinks it refers to the general circumcision of Abraham’s family when that ordinance was first instituted, Genesis 17:23. That first confirmed the promise of the land of Canaan, this second was a thankful celebration of the performance of that promise. But, (2.) All that were born in the wilderness, namely, after their walking in the wilderness, became by the divine sentence a judgment upon them for their disobedience, as is intimated by that repetition of the sentence, Joshua 5:6. All that were born since that fatal day on which God swore in his wrath that none of that generation should enter into his rest were uncircumcised. But what shall we say to this? Had not God enjoined it to Abraham, under a very severe penalty, that every man-child of his seed should be circumcised on the eighth day? Genesis 17:9-14. Was it not the seal of the everlasting covenant? Was not so great a stress laid upon it when they were coming out of Egypt that when, immediately after the first passover, the law concerning that feast was made perpetual, this was one clause of it, that no uncircumcised person should eat of it, but should be deemed as a stranger? and yet, under the government of Moses himself, to have all their children that were born for thirty-eight years together left uncircumcised is unaccountable. So great an omission could not be general but by divine direction. Now, [1.] Some think circumcision was omitted because it was needless: it was appointed to be a mark of distinction between the Israelites and other nations, and therefore in the wilderness, where they were so perfectly separated from all and mingled with none, there was no occasion for it. [2.] Others think that they did not look upon the precept of circumcision as obligatory till they came to settle in Canaan; for in the covenant made with them at Mount Sinai nothing was said about circumcision, neither was it of Moses but of the fathers (John 7:22), and with particular reference to the grant of the land of Canaan, Genesis 17:8. [3.] Others think that God favourably dispensed with the observance of this ordinance in consideration of the unsettledness of their state, and their frequent removals while they were in the wilderness. It was requisite that children after they were circumcised should rest for some time while they were sore, and stirring them might be dangerous to them; God therefore would have mercy and not sacrifice. This reason is generally acquiesced in, but to me it is not satisfactory, for sometimes they staid a year in a place (Numbers 9:22), if not much longer, and in their removals the little children, though sore, might be wrapped so warm, and carried so easy, as to receive no damage, and might certainly be much better accommodated than the mothers in travail or while lying in. Therefore, [4.] To me it seems to have been a continued token of God’s displeasure against them for their unbelief and murmuring. Circumcision was originally a seal of the promise of the land of Canaan, as we observed before. It was in the believing hope of that good land that the patriarchs circumcised their children; but when God had sworn in his wrath concerning the men of was who came out of Egypt that they should be consumed in the wilderness, and never enter Canaan, nor come within sight of it (as that sentence is here repeated, Joshua 5:6, reference being made to it), as a further ratification of that sentence, and to be a constant memorandum of it to them, all that fell under that sentence, and were to fall by it, were forbidden to circumcise their children, by which they were plainly told that, whatever others might, they should never have the benefit of that promise of which circumcision was the seal. And this was such a significant indication of God’s wrath as the breaking of the tables of the covenant was when Israel had broken the covenant by making the golden calf. It is true that there is no express mention of this judicial prohibition in the account of that sentence; but an intimation of it in Numbers 14:33, Your children shall bear your whoredoms. It is probable the children of Caleb and Joshua were circumcised, for they were excepted out of that sentence, and of Caleb it is particularly said, To him will I give the land, and to his children (Deuteronomy 1:36), which was the very promise that circumcision was the seal of: and Joshua is here told to circumcise the people, not his own family. Whatever the reason was, it seems that this great ordinance was omitted in Israel for almost forty years together, which is a plain indication that it was not of absolute necessity, nor was to be of perpetual obligation, but should in the fulness of time be abolished, as now it was for so long a time suspended.

    2. The orders given to Joshua for this general circumcision (Joshua 5:2): Circumcise again the children of Israel, not the same person, but the body of the people. Why was this ordered to be done now? Answer. (1.) Because now the promise of which circumcision was instituted to be the seal was performed. The seed of Israel was brought safely into the land of Canaan. “Let them therefore hereby own the truth of that promise which their fathers had disbelieved, and could not find in their hearts to trust to.” (2.) Because now the threatening of which the suspending of circumcision for thirty-eight years was the ratification was fully executed by the expiring of the forty years. That warfare is accomplished, that iniquity is pardoned (Isaiah 40:2), and therefore now the seal of the covenant is revived again. But why was it not done sooner? why not while they were resting some months in the plains of Moab? why not during the thirty days of their mourning for Moses? Why was it not deferred longer, till they had made some progress in the conquest of Canaan, and had gained a settlement there, at least till they had entrenched themselves, and fortified their camp? why must it be done the very next day after they had come over Jordan? Answer. Because divine Wisdom saw that to be the fittest time, just when the forty years were ended, and they had entered Canaan; and the reasons which human wisdom would have offered against it were easily overruled. [1.] God would hereby show that the camp of Israel was not governed by the ordinary rules and measures of war, but by immediate direction from God, who by thus exposing them, in the most dangerous moments, magnified his own power in protecting them even then. And this great instance of security, in disabling themselves for action just when they were entering upon action, proclaimed such confidence in the divine care for their safety as would increase their enemies’ fears, much more when their scouts informed them not only of the thing itself that was done, but of the meaning of it, that it was a seal of the grant of this land to Israel. [2.] God would hereby animate his people Israel against the difficulties they were now to encounter, by confirming his covenant with them, which gave them unquestionable assurance of victory and success, and the full possession of the land of promise. [3.] God would hereby teach them, and us with them, in all great undertakings to begin with God, to make sure of his favour, by offering ourselves to him a living sacrifice (for that was signified by the blood of circumcision), and then we may expect to prosper in all we do. [4.] The reviving of circumcision, after it had been so long disused, was designed to revive the observance of other institutions, the omission of which had been connived at in the wilderness. This command to circumcise them was to remind them of that which Moses had told them (Deuteronomy 21:8), that when they should have come over Jordan they must not do as they had done in the wilderness, but must come under a stricter discipline. It was said concerning many of the laws God had given them that they must observe them in the land to which they were going, Deuteronomy 6:1; 12:1. [5.] This second circumcision, as it is here called, was typical of the spiritual circumcision with which the Israel of God, when they enter into the gospel rest, are circumcised; it is the learned bishop Pierson’s observation that this circumcision being performed under the direction of Joshua, Moses’s successor, it points to Jesus as the true circumciser, the author of another circumcision than that of the flesh, commanded by the law, even the circumcision of the heart (Romans 2:29), called the circumcision of Christ, Colossians 2:11.”

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